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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  October 13, 2010 12:00am-12:30am PDT

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tavis: good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. first up a conversation with award-winning biographer and best-selling author ron chernow in his new book about america's most famous citizen, "george washington." following acclaimed books like alexander hamilton, his latest bestseller is called "washington: a life." and also tonight the remarkable story of liz in youry -- liz murray and her journey from being homeless to harvard. her story is the basis for the acclaimed new memoir "breaking night." we're glad you joined us. biographer ron chernow and liz murray. coming up right now. >> his name is james and he needs extra help with his reading. >> james? >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference. >> thank you. >> you help us all live better.
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>> nationwide insurance supports "tavis smiley" with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is helping to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- tavis: ron chernow is an acclaimed author and biographer whose houses include "house of morgan" and biographies of alexander hamilton and john d. rockefeller. his latest is a look at our first president george washington, the book called "washington: a life." it's an honor to have you on
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this program. >> apleasure. tavis: let me start with the obvious because it's a pretty dense text as the audience can see. so there's obviously more about washington we need to wrestle with because one would think everything has been said about this guy. >> you know, tavis, i think the starting point of any biography is there is a sense there have been significant i did mentions of the subject's life who for one reason or another had been overlooked by previous biographers and had that revelation when i was doing my last biography on alexander hamilton. late in the revolutionary he has a quarrel with washington and he sits down and writes a letter describing washington as a very moody, irritable, tempermental and said for once the great man shall repent of his ill humor. i remember sitting there thinking ill humor? it was very hard to grab at with the image, the saintly founder of the country. so it led me to believe that perhaps i could create a fresh portrait. indeed, i spent six years doing
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this and i discovered a washington who is a passionate, complex, sensitive man of many moods and fiery opinions but all under this tremendous cloak of reserve, this very stoic alpha usda we know much better than that -- stoic facade we know butch better than the reality. tavis: i'm struck by the genius who decides there's enough here and there is something worth our -- you know, again, wrestling with, that you decide to spend six years of your life, that's six years you can't get back so at the end it had better been worth it. but why devote that much time to this? >> there's a new edition of washington's papers that have been published since 1969 and every year a volume or two comes out to give you some idea how much more we know about george washington. the new edition is based on 135,000 documents, the only one was based on 17,000 documents. we know more about george washington now than his own contemporaries and i dare say
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we know more about george washington than martha did. tavis: ba-ba-ba. one thing we know and you don't shy away from it in these papers is his owning of hundreds. >> -- hundreds of slaves. >> is it a part of his life and is an extraordinary story and i tried to do the most detailed portrait in a biography of washington as a slave holder. he's born into a virginia society where slavery is commonplace and unquestioned and by the end of his life he actually becomes the first founder to free his slaves. but what i wanted to do in this book, tavis, is really take a cold and searching look of what is always said about george washington is he was the benevolent slave master and looked at what that meant because on the one hand he took
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very good medical care of his slaves, you could say he was -- they were his property he was preserving but importantly recognized slave marriages and families and all the records at mount vernon list the slaves by marriages and families and a lot of the slave holders didn't recognize that. i was reading a series of diary entries from 1785, washington is back from the war and writes in his diary this was the coldest winter on record in virginia. he writes it is so cold that it was too cold for him to go out riding and he was an extremely rugged character. and yet he's checking in with the five overseers at his five farms to make sure that all of his slaves are out in the field and they're doing brutal manual labor, draining swamps, digging up tree stumps and washington could never get beyond this idea, or i say never could get beyond the idea he was giving them food and board and wanted
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a full day's work in return. the thing i loved about washington in that he's someone who is capable of constant growth himself and loathes criticism but yet is the only founder who ends up freeing his slaves. tavis: he's obviously a complex character to be sure but the phrase benevolent slave holder is oxymoronic. how did he square those things? >> he doesn't question slavery until the revolutionary war. 5% of the continental army were african-americans, very important part. there was an all-black battalion from road island and massachusetts and is surrounded by marquis delafayette and alexander hamilton and lafayette keeps after him and he writes to him after the war and says my dear general, i would never have lifted the sword in the cause of liberty if i thought in doing so i was founding a land of slavery. so i think you can see when he first becomes commander in
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chief of the continental army he's not only disdainful of the black community but all the militia men. but you could see this virginia planter grows as a human being, even in the first year of the war he receives an ode from phyllis wheatley who was a slave but famous poet. tavis: first published black poet. >> he writes her a magnificent letter thanking her for this ode and said if you're near the headquarters, stop by and see me. and is the sort of letter a year or two earlier george washington would only have written it to a duchess and is now writing to a slave. tavis: and i wanted to pick up on something that goes to the heart of when you give treatment to the subject because as the title suggests, "washington: a life" you're into who he was as a man and his persona and all the complexities within. one thing that made me come back is you said about
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washington he had the ability to grow, the capacity to change. as you well know in the modern day politics that will get you killed. whatever horse you're on, no pun intended, you better ride that. because if you start to shift or change, even in the name of growth or greater understanding, you'll get killed on the campaign trail for being for it before you were against it. >> right. no, absolutely. i think the reason people are willing to entrust so much power to washington was because they felt confident that he would not abuse it. and the founding generation, there's a big misunderstanding, tavis, they were brilliant but opinionated and argumentative and they didn't agree on anything and very kind of rich set of debates, not as sometimes thought i think by the tea party people but they've given us a set of answers, they really kind of gave us a set of questions and all these things are still being debated. but i think george washington came back today, there are certain things about contemperate politics he would
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find depressingly familiar, the fact they're so partisan and nasty. he went through that himself. on the other hand what would depress him aside from the much lower caliber of people we often have in public life is the kind of politics of focus groups and pollsters, you know, lobbyists and political action committees, because when george washington was making a decision, he really only consulted two things. he consulted the national interests and he consulted his own political passions and principles. there never is a sense of putting a finger in the air and testing the wind. tavis: to your point about contemporary politics, president obama, our current president, went into politics or certainly ran for office and i'm taking a point you made, i want to get you to unpack this, you made the point that obama of course went into politics in washington saying he wanted to change the game. he ran for president saying he wanted to change the way washington works. washington did the same thing and later in his life was very
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disappointed. he kind of walked away from it. so compare the two. >> yeah, i think president obama has a good biography of george washington, that he might have avoided that mistake. what happens is when you have fundamental disagreements in the society you'll get this highly partisan atmosphere. and actually a lot of the issues are the same in the 1790's as we're dealing with now, states rights versus federal power, federal power versus legislative power, liberal interpretation of the constitution. tavis: the more things change the more they stay the same. >> exactly. i should say washington would be very happy to see a biracial president because when he freed his slaves, instead -- he was not one of those founders who said we should free those slaves and send them back to africa. he actually provided in his will for education and training for those young slaves who were going to be freed and then would have to operate in society. so i think he was very happy to see obama as president. i think that actually obama's
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president is a kind of very thorough and disciplined and methodical president that washington was. of course, washington was not a glad handing back stabbing politician. you didn't run for office, your friends would lobby for you. washington did not have obama's oratical gifts. on the other hand washington had a powerful image of america's future as a strong, prosperous and just and honorable nation. washington, having been commander in chief of the continental army 8 1/2 years, washington had that mystic bond with the people that i think obama has been struggling to try to obtain. tavis: what was his, as president, his demeanor, his temperament? >> well, hamilton said of washington that he consulted much, he pondered much, he resolved slowly, he resolved surely. washington was not a quick and spontaneous person who thought everything through at great length and for that reason made very few mistakes. washington said, much is to be gained by prudence, much by
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conciliation, much by firmness. a very kind of nuanced view of the presidency. but he really forged the office of the presidency as we know it. we take for granted the fact that the president initiates policy that wasn't the way they saw it in philadelphia in 1787. they thought congress was going to be the preeminent branch which is why article 1 of the constitution is about congress. it really was george washington who saw the three branches of government, one of them would have to be the engine of government and the one would be able to provide the focus and really was the executive branch. tavis: here again i'm struck by the parallels between washington then and our politics now. you take too much time making the decision, you're not called thoughtful and deliberative, you're called out of touch and slow and uncertain. i'm just amazed at the parallels here. >> there was no 24-hour news cycle and washington could not have functioned. in fact, washington had a big
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problem as a general because he had this methodical nature and would come up with very beautiful, battle plans but in the heat of battle, the plans were scrapped and would fall apart. he was not able to improvise in that way. george washington would not have been able to go out on the campaign trail and just kind of spontaneously banter with voters. he didn't have to do press conferences or interviews with the press. and so he was able to retain not only his principles intact but kind of a dignity that would be very difficult for a president now. on the other hand, i have to stress that for the first year or two of his first term he was a political untouchable, of course because he was george washington. but then the opposition press began to ville phi him and -- began to vilify him and the charges ranged he was plotting to restore the monarchy and even he'd been a double agent, he'd been a british agent in the revolutionary war.
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preposterous, cruel, nonsensical things were said about washington. by the time he left after two terms, he was i think not only very tired and beleaguered but in certain ways very embittered by the experience. he was ernestestly trying to do the right thing. tavis: my time i'm with ron chernow is up for now. i'm going to invite you to go to our website at pbs.org and i want to ask ron a question we can get more into on the website, specifically a question about an article he wrote recently about the tea party and the tea party wanting to call down and to rally around these notions that they believed the founding fathers put forth. so part of this contemporary modern day tea movement is trying to tie itself to the founding fathers. i want to get ron's thoughts on that strategy relative to a piece he wrote just days ago here. for now it's an honor to have ron chernow on this program. the book is called "washington: a life." good to have you here and thanks for the book.
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>> pleasure, tavis. tavis: up next the inspiring story of liz murray who went from being homeless to attending harvard. stay with us. tavis: liz murray's story, she was born to a drug addicted mother, spent her teenage years homeless on the streets of new york but at 16 pledged to break out of her circumstances and committed herself to getting an education, an unlikely plan to led to a scholarship at harvard. the acclaimed book about her ordeal is "breaking night" a memoir of survival and journey from homeless to harvard. liz, an honor to you. >> great to be here. thank you for having me. tavis: i suspect this is a story one could have kept to one's self. you don't have to tell the negative in your back story particularly once you're a graduate of harvard. so why even tell all of this? >> great question. i had a calling inside of me.
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i had a sense that when i was going through experiences like living on the streets, losing my parents to aids, just having my whole world turned upside down, there was a feeling inside of me like i was meant for something greater. and i've come to find out in my life, i think most people feel that way. i bet someone watching this right now says, you know what, i have a book in me i need to write. there's something i need to create. what i learned in life was to listen to that intuition and that voice and it was a calling to get this message out there with the hopes of changing other people's lives. tavis: speaking of other people, i suspect there are wat now, and if they're not watching they certainly exist in this country young people, like yourself, kids, who have been born to drug addicted mothers and in your case mother and father both on drugs which is again the case for a lot of young people watching this show now, i suspect. what's your message to them about how to survive what they're going through given that you came out all right on the other side? >> you know, i think part of it
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in my experiences that there's a lot of naturally so, a lot of anger and blame towards your parents that you got gypped and you didn't get the good parents cue have gotten. in my own case what i realized pretty quickly is when parents are drug addicted, it's a disease, you know. and i see that and i was blessed to have that vantage point to understand that you didn't do anything wrong, it's not personal, they're simply sick and it's not personal, you just have to take the lesson that, ok, i'm going to have to take life into my own hands at some point. and a big piece of that is also learning to ask for help. when i grew up in the bronx, we always had -- everyone was telling us watch out for the system, watch out for child welfare, watch out, they'll get you. i grew up with this feeling of society is over there and they're dangerous and not safe. i spent time in a group home that wasn't safe. and from that i got a false message that there's no help out there i can trust. i came to find out later there were certainly nonprofits and
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adults and teachers who i could lean on, it took me years of suffering before i had to get there. so that the young people in those situations, if you've had a bad experience in foster care, if you've had a bad experience on the streets or in a group home, there are places where there are resources for you and people you can trust. tavis: you are exposed to what you were saying with your mother and father every day, how do you end up -- i can see this one or two ways, either you end up attempting to -- even if you end up doing drugs yourself or because of what you've seen, you run as far as you can in the other direction. >> no, i've never been high a day in my life. and i owe a lot of that from my parents in a big way. they had lived this 1970's heyday disco dancing lifestyle that came crashing down. and my sister lisa and i grew up in the aftermath of what happens when the party is over. we watched them every day getting high. and there were a couple things i took. one is of course i never wanted to get high. i would see how graphic the track marks were and how sick
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they were and this early i could never get high. the other piece that was a gift my parents gave me, they loved me very, very deeply. when i think about the transformation that occurred later on in my life, i look back at that love and see that as a pivotal piece and i think that my parents just being who they were showed me, don't make the mistakes that we're making. tavis: how did you -- how do you argue -- how do you know or did you know that your parents loved you when everything they were doing ran counter to that, they were doing drugs, they weren't taking care of you, you and your sister were fending for yourselves, you were eating -- >> right. tavis: you were eating nothing. where is the love part? >> i know people -- believe me, i've gotten -- in fact, i was actually -- i do a lot of public speaking and just little tidbits. i was at a university not long ago and was on a panel and there were six speakers and a room full of academics, the topic was compassion and forgiveness and after i found
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out the entire room was filled with psychiatrists and psychologists. tavis: there's your problem right there. >> i said i'm not angry at my parents and they write something down and come up to me. one man had statistics and a bow tie and went together and he started to quote me the studies i read to tell me about himself. i looked at him and said, sir, a p.h.d., bless your heart, you weren't there. nothing replaces the experience. i was there when my mom came home from the bar and hustled $5 or $10 from some men on the street and gave the money to my dad and said, peter with, go buy us a bag of coke. i knew i didn't have a hot meal that day. but what my eyes and heart and focus went to is well, mom hasn't had a hot meal in two or three days. i need a new winter coat but dad's sneakers are taped together and they're crumbling and breaking off his feet. my parents were always teaching me people can't give you what they don't have. and therefore, when my mom sat at the foot of my bed at night
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and she tucked me in and she would kiss every part of my face and tell me her children were the best thing that ever happened to her, she loved me so much. my dad had been in a p.h.d. program studying psychology and dropped out to live like this. he would take me on long walks and say lizzie, i'll teach you everything you know, i love you, i treasure you. then they'd leave to get high. the lesson people can't give me what i don't have. if there is anything i took from it is ok, i don't expect anyone to hand me anything. there is going to be me and the world, how do i create what i dream about in the world since i'm 100% responsible for my life. tavis: the other thing with all due respect to that room full of academics, you told him exactly right, you weren't there. what they don't get when they're not there and anyone who dealt with this in their family understands this, it's the point you make in the book, it is a sickness. >> yeah. tavis: it's not that they don't love you, they can't help it because they're addicted and sick. it doesn't necessarily mean they don't love you. >> clearly. this book, if there's any
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families that have been impacted by drug and alcohol addiction, i really encourage people to pick up this book because it moves towards healing and forgiveness for that group and really in many ways wrote it towards that demographic but the gift from that is knowing that ok, well, no one is handing me anything and it gave me a sense of how do i engage with the world, there's mo middleman. i actually get to say what happens to me. i'm in charge of my life. and i grew up with that sense of ownership, independence, and responsibility which clearly like at some point it paid off. tavis: i don't want to give the whole book away but top line, the turning point that allows you to make that transition from being homeless to getting into harvard. >> i had been living on the streets of new york and i was sleeping at my friend's houses sometimes in the subway and carried a picture of my mother which is actually in the beginning of "breaking night." if you go on amazon, you see the picture. she was 17 years old in the picture and when she was homeless in new york city.
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so i realized when she died, and i lost her, i saw how i was re-creating her life and becoming part of a cycle and i decided to break that cycle and i went to school. i found some great teachers in new york city at a place called humanities preparatory academy, my teacher perry weiner who i write about in there is a fantastic teacher and i went to school while i was homeless and hid my homelessness and day by day i worked towards getting the best grades i could possibly get and when it came time to apply to college, my teacher encouraged me, well, i was actually walking through harvard yard, we went on a field trip. i'd never been anywhere, anywhere, i am homeless, i had purple hair, i was a mess. they take me somewhere and thought i moved up in life because i had the window seat on amtrak. i had no perspective. when they took us away for that field trip to boston my teacher perry said let's go to harvard yard and take a group picture
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in front of the statue for the yearbook. on my back is my book bag and clothes and journal, my mother's picture her n.a. coin. everything in it. i have my life on my back and in front of me i see these harvard students and i'm exalting them, they're amazing, they've accomplished so much. then it dawns on me, wait, don't i qualify? can't i apply to this? and it was a beautiful moment when i had taken something and, you know, when you just -- i could never do that. i think of a lot of folks, i could never do that. but realize what separated me from the people i admired was the work and i had done the work thanks to the support i had from my teachers and thanks to the nonprofits in my community and i decided to apply. i had no idea what would happen but that's hardly -- the outcome is not the point. harvard is not the point but the fact is really the attempt and to know i would do everything i could to make this happen. tavis: so now you just have one question, what's the name of that book again?
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it's called "breaking night." a memoir of forgiveness, survival and my journey of homeless to harvard written by liz murray. i don't think you need much more encouragement to get this one. liz, congratulations not just on the life but the book and what you're doing to help other people. thanks for coming on. >> thank you for having me. tavis: honor to have you. thanks for tuning in. until next time, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: i'm tavis smiley. join me for a conversation with condoleezza rice on her new memoir. that's next time. see you then. >> all i know is his name is james and he needs extra help with his reading. >> james? >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference -- >> thank you. >> you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports "tavis smiley" with
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every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.
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